How to Progress in the weight room and get the most out of your training.
I often see the same people years after years lifting the same weights and looking the same or sometimes worse; they are typically the same people who are switching up their training programs too frequently or just don’t have a structured plan to follow. If you want some details about how to structure your training, what to focus on and the importance of training variables, please go to my previous articles here.
Well we know we need to get stronger and increase volume in the weight room to see improvements in our physiques or goals. So ultimately how to we improve consistently over time? Well we need to apply progressive overload to our training, but how can we practically do this.
Novices or beginners have it much easier, as they can typically do more each workout but as you adapt, things start to slow and this is where people start changing things up too quickly in my opinion. I usually work with beginner to intermediate style lifters, so this article is geared towards those who need to find practical ways of progressing and staying motivated as consistency and adherence to any plan is key!
Milo and the Bull – To get stronger Milo carried a Calf everyday and as the Calf grew into a Bull, Milo without realizing was applying progressive overload and became the strongest wrestler in Greece!
Novice lifters tend to progress much faster than intermediate lifters. Usually on a session by session basis. I like Mark Rippetoe’s definition of a novice “is a trainee for whom stress applied during a single workout and the recovery from that single stress is sufficient to cause an adaptation by the next workout”. During this phase is is critical to take advantage of this as you can increase strength and muscle very rapidly.
Progress will occur more quickly for certain lifts than others, but when we see a plateau this is when you need to switch things up into a more structured way of programming, rather than changing up movements or style of training.
The main way to progress is simply just add weight in steady increments each time you workout. The rate will depend on the type of lift, muscles worked and also your sex (males vs females); for example a bicep curl will progress slower than a bench press and also less than a squat. I suggest feeling it out each session but going in with the goal of adding weight. A good guide is 5-10lbs increments for lower body and 2.5-5lbs for upper body movements.
There will be a point where your progress slows down and it is not possible to make increases session to session. If you have microplates (1 lb, 0.5 lb) you can use those to keep increasing the weight each session. If you don’t have access to these (as with most gyms) just increase the weight every other session, focusing on the feeling of it being easier in that second session.
Here is an example of how someone would progress during this phase using squats as an example:
Week 1: 135 x 5 x 3 (3 sets of 5 reps)
Week 2: 145 x 5 x 3 (3 sets of 5 reps)
Week 3: 155 x 5 x 3 (3 sets of 5 reps)
Week 4: 160 x 5 x 3 (3 sets of 5 reps)
Week 5: 165 x 5 x 3 (3 sets of 5 reps)
When you fail to progress or meet the reps required, try again with the same load during the following session and if you can’t do it, then I usually suggest dropping back the load by 10% and starting again and you should be able to progress further than before. This allows the body to reduce some of the fatigue that has built up, but also make sure your nutrition and sleep has also been good.
Once you have failed to progress and things have stalled then it’s time to focus on the next stage of your training. Welcome to becoming an intermediate lifter.
Training to failure?
A quick note on training to failure. I usually suggest staying away from failure, I find there is too much fatigue built up and progress becomes really hard fast, if you look into single session, going to failure early will reduce the workout volume, think about taking your first set of squats to failure of 8 reps, if your goal is 4 sets, then the following sets may be a 5, 4 and 3 = 20 reps. But if you had the goal of 4 sets of 6 = 24 reps and less fatigue, which means you will be stronger going into the following sessions. Another reason is people will push their limits too often and get sick/injured, which again takes you away from training and long term results. A good rule of thumb is train at a 8-9/10 or about 1-2 reps shy of failure. This goes for both beginner and intermediate lifters.
An intermediate lifter is starting to reach physical potential and their recovery from stress is affected differently than a novice in such that it takes longer from the same relative stress. Their training age is usually starts somewhere between 6-12 months of serious and continuous lifting.
How to Progress?
I tend to focus on 2 styles of progressions, one for compound movements and the other for isolation movements and although not necessary for some, I have found that implementing planned deloads to be more and more effective as training age continues.
Generally novices can use a simple 10% reduction in weight to get things going again. But with intermediate lifters you need to Manage fatigue is a little more closely. A deload is a way of reducing volume that allows for residual fatigue to dissipate before it can build to a point where it hampers performance and prevents you from progressing with the workout plan as intended. It will also reduce the risk of injury by allowing your connective tissues to recover.
I suggest planning in deloads every 4-6 weeks and sometimes align them with certain periods in your life that need you to focus on that and not pushing the training at 100%. A simple way of planning in deloads is dropping a set by 1 and the weight by 10%, as you can see it’s not a rest week or even significant change in intensity, but it makes a big difference in long term progress.
Onto the progressions!
Let’s say that you have Squat of 4×4-6, 75-80% 1RM listed in your training program.
Week 1: 225 x 6 x 4 (4 sets of 6 reps)
Week 2: 235 x 5 x 4 (4 sets of 5 reps)
Week 3: 235 x 4 x 4 (4 sets of 4 reps)
DELOAD: 225 x 4 x 3 (3 sets of 4 reps)
On the following block, start with the weight of week 2 but the sets and reps of week 1 and continue on.
Week 5: 235 x 6 x 4
Upper body: jump by 2.5lbs (females) and 5lbs (males) week to week
Lower body: jump by 5lbs (females) and 10lbs (males) week to week
As you can see the intensity increases week to week as volume/reps decrease but over time this is called a linear progression as we are increase the volume linearly over time.
For the high rep ranges of 8-12 I suggest dropping the reps by 2 each time (12’s, 10’s, 8’s) while increasing load as needed.
When it comes to isolation exercises (side raises, curls, calf raises, tricep extensions etc.), it is not realistic to increase load that quickly. Imagine trying to add 5 lbs to your dumbbell bicep curl every 4-5 weeks – it’s just not possible to progress like this continuously. Therefore, we need another approach for isolation exercises.
When it comes to this approach I suggest adding reps weekly, instead of increasing the load. This is actually the reverse of the compound progressions as we are adding volume before increasing the intensity. I first heard this term from Eric Helmes, called double progression – we don’t progress load before we reach the top end of repetition range.
Let’s take that bicep curl example, you have 3×12-15 listed in your training program.
Week 1: 25 x 12 x 3
Week 2: 25 x 13 x 3
Week 3: 25 x 14 x 3
DELOAD: 20 x 12 x 2
Week 5: 25 x 15 x 3
Week 6: 30 x 12 x 3
Do I need to Deload?
I would say it’s not as essential to deload but sometimes it’s nice to have everything align together, it can also help speed up overall body recovery and improve performance when you return.
If you find the narrow rep range is too small for larger jumps, let’s say DB based movements, then try 10-15 or 8-15 reps.
The key to making it good progression is keeping the same form through each week, we want quality reps and no modifying your form to accentuate performance, as you are taking the focus off the muscles you are trying to work and not truly stimulating muscle like you were to begin with. Be honest with yourself!
There are many ways to skin a cat, but either way the goal is to get stronger and increase volume over time, this will build a better physique. As you can see these techniques aren’t very exciting, but they are very effective ways that I have found to plan in progressions in my own routine and countless others.
The goal is to find ways you can enjoy improving, as this leads to the best results, as you genuinely get excited to go into the gym stronger, fitter and looking better!
Thanks and I hope this helps you with your training.